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Health-tech startups can make India a true innovation hub

Varun Gera

Varun Gera

Whenever we talk about disruption in any industry, the existing gaps or snags within the space are the driving force behind it, especially when the gaps have reached a point of deficit. It is only at this stage of extreme deprivation that we see truly innovative solutions emerge. And there are plenty of examples to corroborate this fact. Be it the telecom revolution in India that took place in the late 90’s, led by the then newly formed private telecom sector in the country, or the more recent and still growing “Uber” led disruption for the public transport system in India or even the world. Most industries that have seen transformation at any point have benefited from the lacuna that existed before that particular industry was set on a path of resurrection.

If there is one industry in India today that is on the brink of such a disruption it is the healthcare industry. The healthcare sector, which stood at $73.92 billion in 2011, is expected to grow at a CAGR of 16 per cent to $280 billion in 2020 as per industry reports. This growth cannot happen without the right policy framework in place and infrastructure to support its growth. India currently spends 4.2 per cent of its GDP on healthcare, with just 1 per cent being contributed by the government, amongst the lowest globally.

So, yes, the government does have its work cut out as far as reform work and larger public spending participation is concerned. However, with the right balance of public-private partnerships the sector could benefit greatly from delivering technology-based solutions that increase health awareness and ultimately drive deeper engagement.

Startups changing the tide for healthcare
Healthcare companies today have the opportunity to change the playing field, especially as more startups begin to mushroom in this high growth space, and deploy solutions that have never been applied to the healthcare industry before. Working independently or even in tandem with the government’s agenda and/or with the larger ecosystem, these companies can help India move beyond just being a manufacturer of generic drugs to emerge as a true innovation hub that can provide access to affordable health and furthermore, even to help maintain good health. These new-age companies have already helped increase penetration of health insurance products and solved some of the problems of distribution for the insurance industry. Others are evolving as platforms to provide quality and economical access to doctor consultations and diagnostics across the country through effective use of technology and network based models. From a wellness perspective too, there are many startups that are creating apps that encourage good health through various engagement tools. One also sees the emergence of companies that are focused on reducing the urban-rural divide by providing better access to healthcare, irrespective of the location. What is evident from all these examples is the distinct shift that is taking place in the healthcare industry. More and more companies are moving away from a cure-based approach and are now aligning their business models to encourage and provide better health solutions. And the underlying catalyst for this shift is technology.

Driven by the rise of new technologies, healthcare is moving from hospitals and clinics to homes and communities

Symbiosis of Technology and Health
We have already seen technology work wonders in bringing health services and solutions closer to the end user during much of last year. The transition for the healthcare industry to this extent has already kicked off. However, that’s just hitting the proverbial iceberg.

The complexity of the medical field combined with the challenge of the changing human behaviour has left us exposed to a host of new and chronic lifestyle diseases. And like in other industries in the past, here in healthcare too, technology can be the only answer to India’s rapidly growing health conundrum.

Driven by the rise of new technologies, healthcare is moving from hospitals and clinics to homes and communities. From smartphones to social media to sensors, new tools have started empowering consumers with more information and control over their healthcare decisions and this power is only likely to grow in the years to come. Some of the technology driven trends that can be expected include:

  • Adoption of telehealth: This disruptive technology is bringing forth a paradigm shift within the healthcare ecosystem. Patients and consumers can now remotely connect with doctors and medical facilities not just India but globally. A recent study (by Geisinger Health Plan) has shown that the odds of a patient being admitted to the hospital were 23 per cent lower during the months they were enrolled in the tele-monitoring programme.
  • Access to quality health delivery: Technology is simplifying the complex ecosystem of doctors, specialists, diagnostics, second opinions, etc., that has grown all around us today. It is also helping build transparency in the system with respect to quality and costs for each of these services. Additionally, there is growing need for data exchange across the ecosystem for each customer — allowing for efficient treatments, better outcomes at a reduced cost — and technology plays a central role in enabling this exchange.
  • ‘Smart’ health services: Smartphones in India have put health information—and applications—into everyone’s hands. With “medicalisation of consumer devices” smartphones monitor vital signs, measure calories and help consumers manage their own health in every possible setting. The consumer is driving his own healthcare agenda, and innovative technology such as analytics based health mapping, artificial intelligence led fitness applications that will sit on phones or wearables are likely to be game changers for healthcare.
  • Health insurance: The health insurance sector is the largest private consolidator of all forms of health delivery and services. Apart from making healthcare more affordable, insurers need to understand the predictive health of their portfolios, standardise health deliveries across their financed ecosystem through the use of health protocols, improve quality of care, manage medical inflation through bulk discounts and provide various other forms of healthcare interventions for their consumers. Technology plays a key role in enabling consolidation within the sector to enable the efficient flow of all these services. And this is change that is still in process. In future, insurers in India can create platforms for ease of exchange of medical data, use analytics for predicting health, understanding health protocols and managing quality of care.  
  • Big data for health: From inter-operable electronic health records to cloud-based computing and data storage, big data can lead to intuitive analytics that can generate actionable insights to predict disease outcomes, plan treatment protocols and even strategic organisational planning. By digitising, combining and effectively using big data, healthcare organisations can provide a higher quality of care based solutions that can decrease admission rates in hospitals, provide predictive algorithms for diagnostics and on a larger scale even help predict disease patterns and design clinical trials. Further, it would lead to precision medicine, a move towards customised health solutions with the use of genetics, etc., as against the one-size-fits-all approach that exists today. 

On the consumer side, India is still a young health-tech industry, however its growth largely depends on its ability to capitalise the burgeoning phone market and increasing internet penetration. Today, more people in India own a smartphone than health insurance. Technology will be that one key factor in making healthcare available to every individual, from the rural field worker with no access to a clinic to the urban professional with no time to visit a clinic. The convenience of electronic devices powered with technology solutions that help operational efficiently within the healthcare industry can give the power of choice to the consumer when it comes to his healthcare decisions like never before.

The author is CEO of HealthAssure.

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